In Memoriam: Sam Gilliam 1933–2022

June 25, 2022

Born Tupelo, Mississippi

For six decades, Sam Gilliam expanded conceptions of what painting could be. This portrait shows the Washington, D.C.-based artist posed in front of large, stretched canvases hung against the wall, but Gilliam will be remembered for his “drape paintings.” Arranged in three-dimensional forms, these monumental, unstretched color-stained canvases blur the boundaries between painting and sculpture. Gilliam exhibited a selection of drape paintings to great acclaim at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1969, catapulting his national reputation. Three years later, he became the first Black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. 

Although Gilliam’s career took off amidst the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests, his work rarely addressed political themes overtly. And yet, Gilliam observed in a 2018 interview that “the expressive act of making a mark and hanging it in space is always political. My work is as political as it is formal.”

full length photo of a Black artist in paint-spattered overalls in his studio
Sam Gilliam / Paul M. Feinberg / Gelatin silver print, 1969 (printed 2012) / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / 
© 2013, Paul M. Feinberg